By James Greif
It goes without saying that the business of Washington, D.C., is politics. And Mason’s faculty experts and proximity to the nation’s capital have made the university a go-to source for local, national, and international media outlets trying to make sense of the political happenings of the day.
The region is home to more than 2,000 media outlets and more than 4,000 political journalists and media professionals. Over the years, Mason researchers have heard from many of them.
What brings the media to Mason? Whether reporters are working on a story about campaign strategy, early voting, speech analysis, election media coverage, or economic policy, Mason has an expert who can provide context to a complicated political landscape. Mason professors are already weighing in on the 2012 elections.
But Mason’s political scientists aren’t the only faculty active in the media. Researchers in fields such as sociology, communication, economics, health policy, law, and psychology often are called on to share their expertise.
Political Patronage—For Better or Worse
In their latest book, Mason policy professor Susan Tolchin and her husband, Martin, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, examine the issue of political patronage—the use of government resources to reward individuals for their financial support. Titled Pinstripe Patronage, the book refers to the fact that those benefiting most from this system are often more comfortable in the board room than on the assembly line.
The Tolchins look at the current political patronage climate, including the privatization of services once conducted by government; government grants known as earmarks, which are specified for the use of an individual, corporation, or community; and the expansion of hybrid government-private agencies (such as Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae), with well-paid, politically appointed boards of directors and leaders.
The book makes the point that patronage can be an important tool for our elected officials; however, it can quickly morph into wrongdoing.
“Members of Congress will not get re-elected unless there is evidence that they are bringing home the bacon in the form of earmarks or other funding,” says Susan Tolchin, who teaches in Mason’s School of Public Policy. “But as we’ve seen with recent scandals, the power of money can lead to corruption.”
The Tolchins are often commended for their careful research and keen insight. They hope that this book will help people understand that there is often more than meets the eye with contracted government services. For example, many contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were awarded without competitive bidding, with some contractors overcharging taxpayers millions of dollars.
With an increased focus on reducing the federal deficit, the government is looking to reduce the number of contractors and the difference in pay between the contractors and their government counterparts, which can be as high as five times the pay for similar job duties, according to Susan Tolchin.
“In the past, politicians liked to say they have reduced the size of government, but really they have contracted out a lot of it at a much higher cost,” she says.
Interest in the book has been intense. The Tolchins appeared on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews and WNYC’s the Leonard Lopate Show, and they have also participated in several public discussions of the book at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Voice of America, and the renowned Washington, D.C., book store Politics and Prose.
Updates to the planned paperback edition of the book include coverage of the recent rash of political corruption scandals at the local level in Washington, D.C., and nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, and additional information about the true cost of government contracting.
Encouraging Learning through Conversation
The “Beer Summit” took place at the White House in June 2009 after Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., was arrested by Cambridge, Massachusetts, Police Sergeant James Crowley and charges arose that the incident was influenced by the fact that Gates is African American and Crowley is white. The White House got involved in the issue after President Obama said the Cambridge Police “acted stupidly” by arresting Gates. The summit, a meeting of the president sharing a beer with Gates and Crowley, was part of an effort to discuss the various perspectives of the issue and come to a better understanding.
During this incident, Mason race and public policy expert Michael Fauntroy received several media requests on the subject. While he appreciated the opportunity to discuss hot button issues, he couldn’t help but think about ways to bring up the subject outside the context of a controversy.
In this vein, he wanted to create a television show that would take the time to comprehensively discuss important issues instead of shifting from topic to topic and reducing everything to quick sound bites.
“One of the reasons I am attracted to talking to public stations like NPR, PRI, and PBS is that they seem to be interested in topics, such as race and politics, that need to be discussed in-depth without the need to attach to the latest scandal. I wanted to produce a show that allowed me to do that,” says Fauntroy, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy.
The result is The Forum, now airing on GMU-TV. The program is hosted and coproduced by Fauntroy and features interviews with experts from Mason and other schools and organizations in the National Capital area. Taking a cue from the public television and radio shows he admires, Fauntroy designed the show to focus primarily on the conversation between the host and guest.
“I’ve always been fascinated by smart conversation. That’s a great way for me to learn, so doing the show combines two things that are important to me: conversation and learning.”
The show has featured journalists, civil and human rights activists, and some of Fauntroy’s Mason colleagues, including Jim Pfiffner, Mark Rozell, and Susan Tolchin.
“I hope the show helps bring attention to important issues and people who have something interesting to say,” says Fauntroy, author of Republicans and the Black Vote. “It seems to me that the same people are on television saying the same things. I’m interested in taking the road less traveled, and I’m glad to know some pretty smart and experienced people whom I can call on to discuss important issues.”
Fauntroy says he hosts the show and engages with the media to have a regular public outlet to address the issues he believes are important in American society and politics and feels it is important as part of his job as professor.
“It is incumbent to professors who can speak to the media to do so, and it’s good for the university they represent. It also helps us keep in touch with the issues students are interested in,” he says.
In the mainstream media, Fauntroy says he would like to see more coverage of the politicians’ ideas and whether they are viable and workable solutions, as opposed to candidate infighting and the latest election polls.
In October 2011, Fauntroy organized a public conference on race and public policy. “The right time to talk about [these issues] is not usually the time we are allowed to talk about it. The conference was a way to raise these issues when there is no controversy or political motivation,” he says.
Held on Mason’s Arlington Campus, the conference was televised by C-SPAN and analyzed domestic and international issues that have racial aspects, including incarceration policies, congressional redistricting, public education, international aid, and voter disenfranchisement.
Program participants included colleagues from universities across the country, including the University of Arkansas and Barnard College, and representatives from the media and nongovernmental organizations.
Fauntroy is working on two books for release in the next year: a collection of essays that comment on the concept of a post-racial America and a book on how political parties engage in racial symbolism.
Promoting Civic Awareness in Virginia
Mason Virginia politics expert Toni-Michelle Travis has spent her career working to engage Virginians in the state political process. To that end, she serves as editor of Almanac of Virginia Politics, a leading source of information on the legislative process and key players in Virginia government. Legislators, lobbyists, librarians, candidates, civic activists, teachers, students, and citizens all count on the almanac to track the demographics that are bringing about political shifts in the state.
“By publishing this volume, our goal is to promote a culture of civic awareness and help Virginians stay connected to the political process,” says Travis, an associate professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs. Travis has been editor of the volume since 2006.
Since it was first published in 1977, the almanac has been updated every two years and includes biographies and contact information for each member of the Virginia General Assembly. It also includes descriptions of the legislative districts, election returns, and voting records. The 2011 almanac will be the first edition published online.
In addition to her interest in Virginia government, Travis has conducted research on national issues such as racial and gender dimensions in elections, racial and ethnic public policy issues, and urban politics. She has served as a political analyst on Virginia and national politics for a number of local television and radio programs, especially during election time, including WAMU, News Channel 8, and the Washington, D.C., affiliates of Fox, ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Travis is co-author of the books The Meaning of Difference, which examines race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, and Democratic Destiny and the District of Columbia: Federal Politics and Public Policy, which looks at the federal influence on the governance of the District of Columbia.
Analyzing the Polls
No one is busier during an election season than Mason election expert Michael McDonald. As director of the U.S. Elections Project, which tracks early voting and turnout statistics, McDonald always works with the media on Election Day, analyzing election results to help accurately call a race in favor of a particular candidate.
At the Associated Press decision desk in 2010 and the National Election Pool in previous years, McDonald spent the evenings quarantined in a room away from outside influences and took a hard look at what he calls a “kitchen sink of information,” which included exit polls, pre-election polls, voting history, and other data to call each race.
While the media have experienced many Dewey Defeats Truman moments over the years, McDonald takes pride in the fact that he has never called a race incorrectly.
In the month before the 2010 mid-term elections, McDonald and his analyses were mentioned in more than 100 stories across radio, television, online, and in print. He expects 2012 to be more of the same.
Recently, he has been recognized for assisting groups throughout the United States with the redistricting process. Working with Micah Altman, senior research scientist at Harvard University, he headed a project to develop DistrictBuilder, a free open-source, web-based software meant to increase public participation and transparency during the redistricting process. Funded by a grant from the Sloan Foundation, DistrictBuilder was developed in collaboration with the Brookings Institution and Azavea, a Philadelphia-based software design company.
“Much too much politics are injected into the redistricting process, and neighborhoods are chopped up to meet political purposes,” says McDonald, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs at Mason. “What we are trying to do is educate the public about the issue of redistricting and why it matters for their representation. Through this project, we are proposing alternative plans and allowing citizens to become a greater part of the process.”
McDonald and his collaborators seek to change this power imbalance by making it possible for members of the public to draw the boundaries of their communities and generate redistricting plans for their state and locality.
So far, DistrictBuilder has been used by citizen groups to present redistricting proposals in Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, and Rhode Island. In addition, the software has been used in redistricting competitions organized by McDonald in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and the City of Philadelphia.
What’s more, McDonald himself has been actively involved in official state redistricting efforts or litigation in Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. He also testified in front of legislative redistricting committees in Nevada, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.
Providing Another Perspective
Mason public policy professor Mark Rozell has his finger on the pulse of American politics. The author or editor of more than 25 books ranging in topic from executive privilege to religion and the presidency, Rozell is constantly sought out by journalists for his expert opinion and analysis. He has even testified before Congress on several occasions on executive privilege issues.
As an expert in religion and politics, special interest groups, the American presidency, state and southern politics, and conservatism, he believes it is essential to communicate important policy ideas outside the university setting.
“I am not content to communicate only with an academic audience. Much of what academic people learn has relevance to contemporary debates, and this knowledge can only be communicated to the public through the media,” says Rozell, who teaches in Mason’s School of Public Policy.
To this end, Rozell adds writing opinion pieces to his already busy schedule. Despite the fact that he has four books due out in 2012, including Interest Groups in American Campaigns: The New Face of Electioneering, Rozell wrote more than 25 opinion pieces in 2011, which were published in such national media outlets as USA Today, Politico, Roll Call, and The Hill. With these opinion pieces, Rozell is interested in presenting a new perspective on issues that are in the public eye but are not widely understood.
Many of his ideas for these opinion pieces come from topics he is researching, such as the use of White House “czars” who are appointed to circumvent the political process and the influence of Congress. Rozell recently completed The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution, which he co-wrote with Mitchel A. Sollenberger of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The University of Kansas Press will publish the book in 2012.
Much like his School of Public Policy colleague Michael Fauntroy, Rozell finds that the media doesn’t cover many of the issues he considers important or doesn’t report on them beyond the sound bite needed for the evening news.
“My goal is to communicate information that may not have been covered sufficiently by the media and hopefully raise awareness of some important topics,” Rozell says.